26 Mar 2012

Is Asia on the rise or the West in decline? Robin Tim Weis weighs in on the debate.

Is Asia on therise or the Westin decline?Robin Tim Weisweighs in on thedebate.

At heart, people living in the “West” view and treat history as a process of evolving “modernity” in which they have achieved a series of absolute victories over “evil” and the forces of “backwardness.” As a result they have understood the notions of modernity, evolution, and progress in mainly economic terms. Hence, economic growth has been assumed to be an absolute “good” by their cultural mindset, which only seems to know the relentless pursuit of ever-higher growth rates. Little room is left for failure, loss, reflection, or the opportunity of going back. Therefore as they are faced with gloomy unemployment or economic growth figures, they are quick to assume the regression and decline of their societies. In the meantime, they enviously observe the flamboyant “growth markets” of the world as they outgrow and outperform those of the West.

Whilst their economies, peoples, and institutions are hurting, the West is not faced with a decline, but rather has arrived at a crossroad, one which gives them the momentous opportunity to re-evaluate and re-position their countries. By adopting a new mindset and perception of global society, they can not only alter the way in which they reinforce the fundamental pillars of their own societies, but also announce how they will act in a world that is increasingly interconnected. The source for this new mindset will be an unexpected one, namely Chinese statesmanship, as this article will stress.

Oswald Spengler with his apocalyptic saga The Downfall of the Occident makes one of the most implicit cases for the decline of Western society. The work, first published in the summer of 1918, is dominated by the image of the proud but tragic western man, who constantly strives for the unattainable, knowing it will never be reached. Spengler argues that like other “high cultures” (he includes the Babylonians, Egyptians and Mayans) the “western” era has peaked and faces an inevitable “decline”. Broken up according to seasons, Spengler argues that the after the first “awakening” of a community and the appropriation of pragmatism and rationality, a nation is inevitably set to reach its pinnacle. As this occurs fissures start to appear in the structure. Spengler refers to this moment as “the definitive form which betokens the end of the living development of the Culture and the exhaustion of the last potentialities of its significant existence”.

What follows is materialism and democracy or, as Spengler refers to it in Marxist manner, “the rule of the rich.” Once the culture is exhausted, Caesarism kicks in. According to Spengler, the civilisation and society loses the esprit, which once made it great and strong. In turn people cease to take part in political life, which leads the most qualified people to remove themselves from the political process enabling the elite political echelon to rule.

A Chinese approach

Chinese statesmanship in this case exhibits a complete contrast to the “western” evolutionary progress. Chinese statesmanship tends to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future are all interrelated. Hence, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasises a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world can be understood but not completely mastered. This notion of a cyclical evolution clashes with the classical evolutionary one-way street “western” model of history. Hence, Chinese statesmanship stresses a more practical approach to politics, being more interested in understanding human affairs as they are rather than how they ought to be. For China’s classical sages, the world could never be conquered; wise rulers could hope only to harmonise with its trends.

If history tells us one thing, it is that power rarely gives up without a fight; therefore the West must cast aside its case for “moral authority” and utilise its “soft power.” Rather than lecture about history with its big teaching stick, the new West should be a quiet listener, which will point out to its equal counterparts that history and life are not always characterised by constant progress, but rather animated by cyclical interactions. Hence, any change must be organic. The people of the developing world will be the architects of their own future. Ultimately the West, the current headmaster, will become a mentor, a patient mentor, who will guide not dictate the organic urges of coming generations.

Therefore as the world becomes more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just, the West does not decline; it wins. It wins because nations champion and struggle for the rights and values, which have been noted down in historical monumental documents such as the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, or the American Declaration of Independence. However this longing for human dignity and respect towards others shall not be understood as “western,” but rather as universal. The following generations will, via trial and error, come to discover their deeply instilled quest for and belief in human dignity, respect, prosperity, and security. This somewhat scientific approach to politics is underscored by the anecdote surrounding Thomas Paine, also an amateur astronomer, who once speculated that every star is a sun like our own, with orbiting planets. Assuming that science is universal, he believed that inhabitants of other worlds would discover the same natural and social laws as ours.

Robin Tim Weis is currently a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg (Heidelberg, Germany) earning a Masters of Arts in American Studies. He holds a degree in International Affairs and his email is